This activity is part of the Climate Change Challenge unit.

1. Direct students to conduct a carbon footprint audit by examining their personal habits of carbon consumption.

  • Prompt students to brainstorm reasons that we, as individuals, should decrease the amount of carbon dioxide we contribute to Earth’s atmosphere. (Listen for students to mention both impacts on Earth’s ecosystems and human impacts, such as those discussed in the Adaptation and Mitigation activity.)
  • Review the National Geographic Glossary entry for carbon footprint with students, asking:
      • How do you think your carbon footprint compares to your classmates’?
      • How do you think your carbon footprint compares to other people around the world? (If necessary, prompt students to connect the concept of carbon footprint to carbon sources and sinks and their own habits and behavior.)
      • Demonstrate for students the decision-making necessary to track your carbon footprint using a carbon footprint calculator, such as the Global Footprint Network Calculator. Note: students will need an email address to log in to this particular calculator.
  • Give students time to use the calculator to determine their carbon footprint.
  • Discuss students’ carbon footprint findings as a class, asking the following questions:
      • How did your footprint compare with your neighbor’s or with the teacher’s? (Students' responses will vary. Encourage students to avoid competition and seek solutions instead.)
  • What factors do you think have the most impact on your carbon footprint? (Students' responses will vary, but should center on some of the factors explored by typical carbon footprint calculators, such as diet, transportation, and energy use.)


2. Prompt students to explain how particular habits impact carbon consumption through online research.

  • Divide the class into groups of three students.
  • Within a group, have each student choose and research one of three factors that contribute substantially to carbon footprints: diet, transportation, or energy use. Direct students to record their findings in Part A of the Our Footprints handout:
      • Small and large footprint examples for this factor: (For example, eating poultry is a small footprint example and eating beef is a large footprint example for diet.)
      • How carbon is produced by large footprint examples of this factor: (For example, burning fossil fuels to generate electricity is how some carbon is produced during energy use).
  • After students have completed their individual research for each factor, direct them to share their findings with group members. Complete Part A of the Our Footprints handout for all factors.
  • As a class, discuss small and large footprint examples found during student research.


3. Support students as they read to generate additional strategies for minimizing carbon footprints.

  • Challenge the class to generate a list of ways individuals and groups can minimize their carbon footprint. Have them make the list as long as possible.
  • Point students to two online sources:
  • In their jigsaw groups from the previous step, assign students to focus on food, transportation, or energy use, as they explore one or both of these resources to identify as many personal and group strategies for carbon footprint reduction as possible. Have them record their findings in Part B of their Our Footprints handout.
  • Bring the class back together, projecting a copy of the chart from Part B of the Our Footprints handout. Soliciting strategies from all groups, digitally record as many carbon footprint reduction strategies as possible for all three categories (diet, transportation, and energy use) and save this list for use in the next activity.
  • Assign students to use this knowledge, as well as their experience with the carbon footprint calculator, to reflect once more on their own carbon contributions, completing Part C of the Our Footprints handout.
  • Return to the class Know and Need to Know chart, asking students to incorporate any new insights regarding carbon footprints and strategies for minimization on an individual or group level.

Informal Assessment

Informally assess students’ understanding of the factors contributing to carbon footprints, as well as their sense of agency to reduce their own carbon footprint, using the Our Footprints handout.

Extending the Learning

The New York Times has a weekly climate newsletter for which you can sign up using an email address. Articles in this series may be appropriate for higher-level readers, and an opportunity to augment the media in this activity and others within the unit. Additionally, CNN has created a climate change quiz to help identify the most effective carbon-reduction strategies, which students might wish to take after listing and categorizing strategies in this step. Finally, students may wish to explore aspects of youth climate activism (6:45) to witness what other young people are saying and doing in an effort to slow and reverse the effects of climate change.

Subjects & Disciplines

  • Earth Science
    • Climatology

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Evaluate their carbon footprint.
  • Perform research to explain how particular habits impact carbon consumption.

Teaching Approach

  • Project-based learning

Teaching Methods

  • Discussions
  • Multimedia instruction
  • Reading

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.4:  Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6-8 texts and topics.

Next Generation Science Standards

What You’ll Need

Required Technology

  • Internet Access: Required
  • Tech Setup: 1 computer per pair, Monitor/screen, Projector, Speakers

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer lab


  • Large-group instruction
  • Large-group learning
  • Small-group learning
  • Small-group work

Background Information

A carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gases that are necessary to support human activities. A single person’s carbon footprint can be estimated by thinking about their habits. In particular, the types of food they eat, as well as the transportation and energy that they use, are important. For example, eating poultry typically generates less greenhouse gas than eating beef, biking generates fewer greenhouse gases than driving, and turning down the heat can help prevent the generation of these gases in the first place. Knowing which habits contribute to one’s personal carbon footprint can be a first step towards reducing that footprint.


Some of the most effective individual strategies to reduce climate change involve diet, transportation, and energy use. However, there are also important group strategies at the local, state, and national levels that can have widespread impacts with regards to these same habits. For example, governments can fund research into cleaner, more efficient energy technology, or regulate emissions standards for vehicles. Cities and towns can promote food recycling programs, such as composting or recovery of edible food before it is discarded. Because climate change is an international problem, it will ultimately require global cooperation to address.


carbon footprint
total sets of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an organization, event, product or individual over a set period of time.

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.


increase in the average temperature of the Earth's air and oceans.